Temple Trip: Tirta Empul and Gunung Kawi, Bali

Oh, Balinese water temples, how I love thee so! We’d heard about an interesting site not too far north of Ubud and drove out in Made’s six seater Suzuki a couple of days ago to investigate. Along the way, we drove through a village area which specialises in the wood carving of Garuda, a “lesser Hindu divinity, usually the mount (vahanam) of the God Vishnu. Garuda is depicted as having the golden body of a strong man with a white face, red wings, and an eagle’s beak and with a crown on his head. This ancient deity was said to be massive, large enough to block out the sun.” Every studio/home we passed had what seemed to be an endless supply of Garuda sculptures, from tiny to very massive. Each village here specialises in a specific kind of sculpture and, as in days of old, very young children learn the craft at their fathers’ feet.

After quite a nice drive through the relatively quiet countryside, we arrived at our first stop, Tirta Empul (Temple of Holy Water) water temple. The Tirta Empul Temple, thought to have been founded in 926 ce, includes the traditional Balinese split gate along with shrines to Shiva, Vishnu, Braham, Mt. Batur, and Indra.

There is also a large open pavilion in the main courtyard, and a long rectangular pool carved of stone, filled with koi and fed by the sacred spring’s twelve fountains.

Hindu worshippers first make an offering at the temple, then climb into the main pool to bathe and pray. Many collect the holy water in bottles to take home. Nearby there are two smaller pools fed by the spring (Sacred Destinations).

First I simply dipped my toes in the water but, after watching others for a bit, I decided to go all out, slipped into the water in my clothes, and dipped my head under the sacred spring.

Unfortunately, since we didn’t have a guide, I didn’t realise that I should have visited the temple proper first before entering the pool. All visitors to the temple are required to wear sashes and sarongs, but are not allowed in if said sashes and sarongs are wet (which of course mine were). Luckily, there were sarongs and sashes available at the entrance so I put those on instead. This day was a temple procession day, one held every six months, possibly in homage to the god of money, although I’m not quite sure about that. As a result, streams of women dressed in batik and lace carrying heavy loads of offerings on their heads entered the temple and set them down. A gamelan orchestra, composed entirely of men, played metallic percussion music the entire time we were on the site. From the parking lot, cartloads of rice bags were rolled into the temple compound.

After a pleasant hour or so at the water temple, we were on the road again to Gunung Kawi, a riverside temple site not too far distant. From the village of Tampaksiring a stone path leads steeply down through market stalls and rice fields to Pakerisan, considered a sacred river.

Once down the narrow passage and through the stone gate, we turned left and entered the Candi temple where four enormous rock hewn altars greeted us. The term candi refers to the abode of Candika, Goddess of Death, and consort of Lord Siva:

“The candis of Gunung Kawi are believed to be constructed in the 11th century (1080 AD) by king Anak Wungsu in honor of his father, the great Balinese ruler Udayana. Contrary to what is often believed, the candis are not tombs, for they have never contained human remains or ashes. In this respect they are rather considered to be symbolic secular accommodations to house the members of the defied royal family when they are invited down during temple festivals, similar to the rites that are still held today during the temple festivals of ‘modern’ Balinese Hinduism, as shaped by Nirartha in the 16th century.

The candis of Gunung Kawi are devided into three separate sections. Four minor candis can be found at one side of the river, five major ones at the other side and, often overlooked by visiors, a tenth candi a little laid back from these major and minor clusters. There is evidence that the candis were probably once protected within two massive rock-hewn cloisters. In shape the candis resemble small buildings surmounted by massive three-tiered roofs bearing nine stylized lingam-yoni fertility symbols. Each candi actually looks like a doorway, carved in relief, but going nowhere. Instead, there is a small chamber beneath the candi, accessed by a sloping shaft from the front, in which a stone plaque (peripih) with nine holes containing symbolic offerings of food and metal objects, representing the necessities of earthly existence, was placed. …

Apart from the candis themselves, there are room-like structures that all share certain common features. These structures may be classified into three types. The simplest of these chambers comprises a single space. Next come similar spaces, which also have leading from them a second, closed chamber. The third category consists of in total ten chambers that are closed off by a front wall that has both a central doorway and an elongated horizontal window opening. They also have a closed chamber with a deeply incised false window niche that is symmetrically placed to match the real window. Many of the closed side chambers possess remarkably resonant acoustics, perfect for spiritual meditation intended to tune in to specific energy vibrations” (http://www.wonderfulbali.com/centralbali/tampaksiring.htm).

We wandered through the “room-like structures” on the far side of the river. These reminded me quite a bit of the cave houses and rock-cut churches in Cappadoccia, while the Candis themselves recalled the rock-cut tombs of Dalyan (in Turkey), although these are not nearly as old as the Turkish structures which date from the 4th or 3rd century bce. One very large stone dwelling looked quite a bit like a gigantic free-standing sarcophagus.

Along with these pre-Hindu sacred structures is a more modern Hindu temple. (Ty got the thumbs-up from many of the local guys for his Balinese attire and is acquiring quite a collection of sarongs).

See more pictures here.

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